Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Dying of the Light: The Joseph Valachi Story

The Apprentice

Joseph Michael Valachi was born on September 22, 1904, in East Harlem, a ghetto on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. His parents, Marie and Dominick, had emigrated from Naples to settle in New York. Valachis family was as poor and wretched as any could have been. He was one of seventeen children, only six of which survived. His kid brother, Johnny, was found dead in the streets, apparently the victim of a hit-and-run accident, although rumor had it that the police had beaten him to death. His oldest brother, Anthony, was committed to the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Danemora. Two of his three sisters and his grandmother were also destined to become patients in mental hospitals.

Joseph Valachi (CORBIS)
Joseph Valachi
He grew up in a world of poverty and despair, living in a succession of miserable cold-water flats-hovels in fact-and often he shared his bedroom with the wood and coal his family scavenged for heating fuel. His schooling was erratic, to say the least, and when he was eleven, he threw a rock at his teacher. For this, he was sent to the New York Catholic Protectory, a reform school for wayward children. By the time he was fifteen he had left school behind and was working with his father at the New York City garbage dump on 107th Street, near the East River.

Three years later, Joe was out of the work force and had joined up with a gang of teenage toughs and burglars know as the Minute Men, because of the speed at which they operated. Over a four-year period, this gang carried out hundreds of thefts. Joe was lucky to avoid the law, but that changed in August 1923. After breaking into a store one night and stealing bolts of cloth, he was chased by the police and shot in the arm. Though he escaped and the wound turned out to be superficial, the car registration had been traced, and he was arrested, tried and convicted. On October 26th, 1923, he was sent to Ossining Prison, in upper New York state. For a criminal from New York, to be sent up the river meant just that, to go to the most famous prison in America. The local Indians had known it as stone upon stone, but to the hoods of the underworld it was more familiar as Sing Sing. In its early days, the dark, forbidding pile had for some reason been known as Mount Pleasant. Joe was there for nine months.

After his release, he rejoined the neighborhood thieving, but this time he started up a small gang of his own. While breaking into a Bronx warehouse that was used to store fur coats, he and his gang were surprised by a passing police patrolman who managed to get a shot off at them. Valachi was hit again, this time in the head, but after surgery by an underground doctor, he miraculously recovered.

Then Valachi joined up with four other young hoodlums, and they robbed a loft in Upper Manhattan that was crammed with bolts of silk. Valachis Packard stalled, and the gang had to escape in another car driven by a young hood called Joseph (Pip the Blind) Gagliano. However, the police traced the abandoned car to Valachi and arrested him. In April 1925, he was sent to Sing Sing again, this time for three years.

Not long after he was admitted, he was attacked and knifed in the back by a man called Pete LaTampa. It was a wound that almost killed him, requiring thirty-eight stitches. His would-be assassin would make the headlines in the years to come because of his involvement in a murder that would help to change the course of organized crime in New York. That killing would also involve a man who would eventually become Valachi's nemesis.

During this third spell in prison, Joe completed his seventh grade education, learning to read and write. He also made friends with an old-timer called Alessandro Vollero, one of the more prominent of the Italian gangsters operating in Brooklyn since the turn of the century. He was serving a life sentence for the murder in 1918 of Vincenzo Terranova, the younger brother of The Artichoke King, a prominent figure in the Italian mobs of New York.

Vollero coached the young Valachi in the complexities of the underworld, explaining in detail the differences between the two main factions that dominated the criminal landscape: those men who originated from Naples and those who came to America from Sicily.

Joe came out of his second term at Sing Sing on June 15th, 1928. His first major job was to sort out the problem that had resulted in the murder attempt on his life by LaTempa. A few months before he went to prison, Joe had been involved in a fracas with a group of Italian mobsters who operated under the control of Ciro Terranova. They claimed he had been the wheelman in a car that had shot up their neighborhood. Valachi had strongly denied this, but Terranova had ordered LaTempa to hit Joe in revenge.

Through the mediation of a man whom Joe had met in Sing Sing, Dominick The Gap Petrilli, the dispute was apparently resolved, although Joe never forgave Terranova for the attack. Valachi then returned to the one thing he knew best-burglary. Putting together another small gang, he and his companions were soon grossing about $1500 each week for two or three nights work.

One day, The Gap introduced Joe to a man called Girolama Santucci, better known in the underworld as Bobby Doyle. After checking Joe out, Santucci arranged for an introduction between Joe and a man called Tom Gagliano. This would be one of the most important meetings in Valachis life. It would take him from a life of petty thieving and two-bit burglaries into the world of organized crime.



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